By GRACE KINNICUTT
Capitol News Illinoisgkinnicutt@capitolnewsillinois.com
SPRINGFIELD – Gov. JB Pritzker signed legislation Friday that is aimed at cracking down on high-profile “smash-and-grabs” and other organized retail theft.
“This important piece of legislation will help to combat these unlawful activities by addressing the problem from multiple angles,” Chauncey Rice, government relations manager for the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said at a news conference.
Backed by IRMA and Attorney General Kwame Raoul, the bill is in response to a recent increase in organized retail theft at malls in the suburbs and stores along the Magnificent Mile in Chicago.
Raoul said he did not know what organized retail crime was one year ago and thought of it like ordinary theft.
When he was attending an out-of-state conference, Raoul said, he watched a presentation about organized retail theft groups and saw videos of stolen goods that “made you think you were in a hardware store.”
He said the goal going forward is to crack down on organized retail crime and educate retailers and law enforcement around the state on what it is and that it is linked to other criminal activity such as human, gun or drug trafficking and, in some cases, terrorism.
“Law enforcement, like me, might have mistaken some of these acts as isolated acts of retail theft when they’re actually very well coordinated crimes,” Raoul said.
It defines, for the first time, organized retail crime into law and creates stiffer penalties for the ringleaders of retail thefts. The law goes into effect Jan. 1, 2023.
A person is guilty of being a ringleader of a retail theft operation if they recruit individuals, supervise finances or direct others to commit the theft with the intent to resell merchandise that exceeds $300 in value.
Ringleaders can also be guilty if merchandise is stolen while in transit from the manufacturer to the retail establishment.
Advocates for the legislation reiterated that it will specifically target organized crime rings, rather than giving harsh penalties for those who commit “petty retail theft.”
“Let me be clear, this is not aimed at a low-income parent desperate to feed their child. It’s not about a kid making a shortsighted mistake,” Pritzker said. “This is about a multibillion-dollar industry of organized criminals carrying out sophisticated theft operations.”
In December 2021, Pritzker said an Organized Retail Crime Task Force overseen by Raoul’s office recovered millions of dollars in stolen merchandise from storage units at two Chicago facilities as part of a large-scale investigation into the crime rings.
Chief Senate Sponsor Suzy Glowiak Hilton, D-Western Springs, said the bill addresses concerns raised by law enforcement, prosecutors and businesses while ensuring law enforcement has tools needed to reduce organized retail theft.
Prosecutors will have the ability to consolidate charges against ringleaders in one county even if a ring of smash-and-grabs happened across multiple counties, and it allows the attorney general to convene statewide grand juries to investigate, indict and prosecute violations.
Raoul said it is a consumer protection issue because the stolen items can also be put on an online marketplace to unsuspecting consumers.
The legislation will require online, third-party sellers to verify a user’s identity with a bank account number or other information to prevent stolen goods from being sold online. Third-party sellers will be required to suspend sellers that knowingly sell items there were stolen or believed to be stolen.
It also creates a statewide intelligence-sharing tool to help retailers, police and prosecutors to communicate with each other.
The state budget also invests $5 million to allow the attorney general’s office to award grants to state’s attorneys and law enforcement agencies that investigate and prosecute organized retail crime.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government that is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.